While many factors led to the fall of the Roman Empire, the Crisis of the 3rd Century embodied the turmoil that eventually ended Rome's centuries-long rule. More than 20 barracks emperors - men who came to power thanks to their military prowess and their troops' support - rose in quick succession to control imperial Rome. The first of those military emperors was Maximinus Thrax, Roman emperor from 235 to 238 CE.
Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus Augustus, better known as Maximinus Thrax, was a giant of a man - figuratively and literally, based on the stories circulated by his troops - and his shadow loomed over the fate of Rome. During his three years in power, Maximinus Thrax fought against both enemies of Rome and his foes in the Roman Senate, contributing to the chaos and instability that led to the end of the Roman Empire. Did one man bring down the empire? Of course not. But Maximinus Thrax's actions on the battlefield, the circumstances of his life and death, and his political legacy set the stage for decades of upheaval.
Born in the province of Thrace in 172 or 173 CE, Gaius Julius Verus entered the Roman military in 190 CE. His size and strength gave him an edge, and he quickly rose in the ranks as he fought throughout the empire's territories. By 232 CE, Verus had command of his own legion in Egypt. Over the following years, he governed Mesopotamia and led Roman troops against Germanic forces on the edge of the empire.
Once he became emperor in 235 CE, he fought to consolidate his power in the Germanic territories and secure the frontiers rather than head back to Rome. This strategy was good enough for a time, but a revolt in Africa forced Maximinus to go to Italy to defend his claim to the imperial throne. He only made it as far as Aquileia in Northern Italy, where, during a siege on the city, Maximinus's troops turned on him and killed him. The soldiers then marched his head to Rome on a spike - the first time any part of him ever entered the seat of his empire.
Maximinus's military prowess and respect among his troops got the attention of Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, which propelled the soldier to new levels of success. Severus gave Maximinus command of recruiting and training troops in Germany.
Severus became emperor at age 13 in 221 CE, and his mother, Julia Mamaea, profoundly influenced him throughout his reign. He and his mother traveled to Germany in 235 CE to end a conflict with barbarian tribes who were raiding into the empire. Severus had no plan other than to pay off the German tribe. Along with the recent military pay cut Severus instituted, this infuriated the Roman troops. The military turned on him, killing both Severus and his mother. Some historians say Maximinus led the revolt, and others claim Severus's mother had an assassin kill him. No matter who killed Severus, the military promoted Maximinus to succeed him as the emperor without approval from the Senate.
Maximinus Thrax's promotion to Roman emperor at the hands of his troops was not without challenges from the Roman bureaucracy. Many people in Rome supported a senator named Magnus. Magnus initiated a revolt against Maximinus, conspiring with members of the military to destroy a bridge across the Rhine river with the new emperor stranded on the opposite side in hostile German territory. Maximinus discovered the plot against him and had anyone associated with it killed. Some historians see the whole affair as a falsehood created by Maximinus to justify his barbaric behavior.
Another opponent, Titus Quartinus, had supporters in Rome as well. One of Titus's most ardent proponents, Macedo, turned on him shortly after others made a case for his elevation to emperor. Macedo killed Titus and, to prove his loyalty to Maximinus, cut off Titus's head and presented it to him. Maximinus responded by thanking Macedo, but still had him killed for treason. It was only after these initial struggles that the Senate reluctantly agreed to back Maximinus, but their support was halfhearted and short-lived.
According to the Historia Augusta, Maximinus "was of such size... that men said he was six inches over eight feet in height; and his thumb was so huge that he used his wife's bracelet for a ring." Some also claimed he pulled fully loaded carts by hand, punched teeth out of horses' mouths, and crushed large stones with ease. Writers embellished accounts of his enormity over time, but historians and scientists speculate he may have had gigantism or acromegaly (a hormonal imbalance from a tumor on his pituitary gland).
His size may have contributed to why the soldiers promoted him to emperor in 235 CE, but the Historia Augusta claimed he was also generous with his troops:
Maximinus was always clever enough not to rule the soldiers by force alone; on the contrary, he made them devoted to him by rewards and riches. He never took away any man's rations; he never let any man in his army work as a smith or artisan, which most of them are, but kept the legions busy only with frequent hunting.